Turkey: ‘Surreal, Menacing…Pompous’

Osman Orsal/Reuters
Antigovernment protesters at Taksim Square, Istanbul, July 20, 2013

Now, more than ever, it is harder to argue for the compatibility of political Islam and democracy. The ejection of the Muslim Brotherhood from the government of Egypt has delivered a heavy blow to the prospects of an accommodation between the two. The Brotherhood came to power democratically, governed dismally and repressively, and was toppled in a bloody military coup. Many Egyptian Islamists now associate democracy with pain, humiliation, and death.

The effects of the Egyptian debacle have been widely felt. Saudi Arabia and Jordan feel more politically secure than at any time since the start of the Arab Spring, although Jordan has the heavy burden of absorbing some 500,000 Syrian refugees. The prospect of a democratic Syria has in any case long since disappeared behind the blood and smoke. But now another nightmare may be emerging in Turkey, the Middle East’s most prominent proponent of what might be called Islamic democracy. The stability and prosperity that Turkey has enjoyed over the past ten years had associated the country with a type of political arrangement known flatteringly as the “Turkish model.” This summer, the model came unstuck.

On May 27, small numbers of environmentalists occupied Gezi Park, in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, protesting against plans to replace the park with a shopping center inspired by the design of an old Ottoman barracks. Over the next few days they were joined by others expressing dissatisfaction with what they regard as the government’s meddlesome Islamist agenda. The police responded violently and the agitation grew; by the time of the brutal eviction of a huge crowd from Taksim Square, more than two weeks later, some 3.5 million people (from a population of 80 million) had taken part in almost five thousand demonstrations across Turkey, five had lost their lives, and more than eight thousand had been injured. Clearly, the “Gezi events” were about more than trees.

The unrest of this summer divided Turks on the same issues that have caused civil strife elsewhere in the region: among them political Islam, ethnic and sectarian divisions (involving the Kurdish and Alevi minorities), and authoritarian rule. Although a meltdown on Egyptian lines is implausible, a transition to Islamic authoritarianism is not. That would do further injury to the idea that Islam and democracy can share the public sphere. It would also be the end of an experiment of which Turks are justifiably proud.

The reforms that Turkey embarked upon in the mid-2000s were long overdue. For decades, the country’s pious majority had been suppressed by a secular elite claiming to uphold the values of the republic’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In 1923, Atatürk set up the Republic of Turkey from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire; he spent the rest of his life secularizing institutions and propagating European education, mores, and dress. Atatürk…

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